This Ancient Roman Myth About Witches Will Literally Give You Nightmares

by JR Thorpe

Most contemporary depictions of witches are pretty charming in their own cliché way: Bette Midler and her cadre of long-sleeved cackling buddies in Hocus Pocus, the charming Kiki from Studio Ghibli classic Kiki's Delivery Service, or Angela Lansbury's utterly incompetent Eglantine Price from Bedknobs & Broomsticks (after which my own cat is named). But witches weren't always the broomstick-riding, black cat-loving figures of yore, a fact that many modern witches will happily explain to you. And if we go back past Salem, past the medieval period, and into truly ancient times, the first witches in ancient history were deeply terrifying supernatural creatures that could make even an emperor's blood run cold.

Over the centuries, the supernatural elements of witchery have accumulated other societal baggage, most of it patriarchal. Women in the medieval period were thought to be more vulnerable to the Devil's machinations because they were weaker in the brain, for instance: the most famous witch-hunting manual of all time, the Malleus Maleficarum of 1486, notes that "when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil... through the first defect of their intelligence [women] are more prone to abjure the faith". If you're looking at the full picture of witch history, it's important to remember that through most of history, women were often branded witches for living outside of societal norms — not because they practiced magic. But these myths have a core of very real horror at their center. As one of the original things that went "bump" in the night, the witch's ancient origins might just scare the pants off you.

The Romans Thought Witches Were Demonic Owls

If you look at owls as gentle, adorable birds, the Romans did not see them the same way. And they're the source of one of the most terrifying origin stories for witchcraft in history. A female witch, according to their development in Roman folklore, was a strix: a night-owl or screech-owl that could assume human form, and was the enemy of human civilization, particularly women and children.

The strix wasn't originally thought to be a woman at all. It was believed, before around the first century AD, to be a creature that remained in its animal form all the time, and specialized in flying around at night and feeding on the blood and flesh of small children. The Greeks had a similar demon, the lamia, mythologically believed to be a queen whose children were murdered by the goddess Hera, who would also devour and suck the blood of beautiful young men. However, the idea of both the strix and the lamia evolved to become synonymous with the idea of an elderly witch, and Romans came to believe that certain kinds of women could literally turn into screech-owls and become what historian Maxwell Teitel Paul calls "inversions of femininity." Some historians even argue that Romans became more obsessed with the idea of the strix as the Empire became destabilized, worrying that the entire Roman world was being targeted by dark forces and demons.

The line between women who used magic ("wise women"), who could be induced to bless your babies and curse your enemies, and night-demons was, for a long time, pretty thin. The most famous witch in Roman literary history, an elderly character called Canidia who appears in the poems of the poet Horace (and may have been based on a real woman), practices all kinds of magic: she does blood sacrifices, buries magical items, and, most threateningly, starves a small boy to death as part of her spells. Horace writes that she invokes a strix and asks it for an egg and a feather — she herself isn't one, but she can summon them and use them for evil purposes.

Eventually, however, the link became pretty explicit. Later Roman novelists wrote about witches under the name strix, and said that they rubbed their bodies in ointment, turned into screech-owls, and flew out of the window seeking either lovers to torment or children to eat. The word was so embedded that it carried on into the medieval period; as the witch-hunts of the 1500s were beginning, a man called Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola published an extensive dialogue about whether or not witches existed. It was called, simply, Strix.

Roman Witches Were The Original Vampires — And Necrophiliacs

In this mythology, the strix had a particular target: children. Ancient Roman depictions of magic involved men as well, but elderly female witches specialized in murdering and torturing children, including those still in the womb, for spells. In their bird form, they offered their breasts to babies, and fed them poisoned milk. The ancient Germans believed in a similar phenomenon, and one of the earliest Germanic law books, the Lex Salica, included rules on what to do if a woman was found to have transformed into a creature that had eaten a man, and it was "proved against her."

The strix, besides being a cannibal, was prone to carrying off children for necromancy, using their body parts or blood for spells. A funerary inscription in Rome notes that a four-year-old slave belonging to the sister of the Emperor Claudius was "carried off" by a witch. They were even believed to devour living children whole. The only way to ward them off was to appease them with platters of pork, keep a watch on the cradle all night, and hang hawthorn everywhere. One particularly horrendous example, Erictho, who appears in the poetry of Roman poet Lucan and in Dante's Inferno, not only steals fetuses, she also has sex with corpses.

The idea of the blood-sucking night demon that can assume female form and threaten children has been pretty influential to many aspects of modern supernatural mythology. The strix is argued to have contributed to the long Eastern European tradition of beliefs in vampirism, and is also thought to be a precedent for the famous Slavic folkloric witch Baba Yaga, who is also a night-flier (in a mortar and pestle, rather than a broomstick) and devours young children. The ancient Judaic tradition also has a sister demon, Lilith, Adam's first wife, who was driven from Eden for not being obedient and became a child-devouring force of evil. (Lilith has since been reclaimed by second-wave feminists as a symbol of female equality because of her refusal to be subservient to Adam, hence the famous all-female Lilith Fair music festival). As cultures met, mingled and traded ideas about terrifying things that go bump in the night, the idea of the strix evolved and merged with other ideas — to ultimately form the cheesy image of a witch that is very much at odds with actual modern witches.